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Cindy Stein Urbanc Headshot

Birth of a Nation

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Now that I see it on paper, I realize how ridiculous it sounds that I commute for work from Hawaii to South Sudan but the truth is, aside from the 30+ hour journey, I am grateful for the time I get to spend there. Living in Hawaii has its obvious perks, and so many people assume I am sacrificing a lot when I leave to spend time in an underdeveloped and unstable country-and don't get me started on how many people imply I'm a bad mother for going somewhere dangerous or even that I leave my kids for work at all. (I wonder how many MEN on a business trip ever get asked, "Who watches your kids while you are gone?") Nonetheless, I do this work because it is necessary and meaningful and really, I feel it is my responsibility as someone who has been given the privilege of education, health, and security that the South Sudanese people don't have access to.

Don't get me wrong, the work is challenging and at times frustrating and emotionally heavy (I do maternal child health programs/hospital support/water and sanitation with a global NGO called Real Medicine Foundation) but I also get to spend time in the real South Sudan-with the infectious smiles of the people, their stories of hope and determination, and the wildlife and nature that is breathtaking. In fact, I would rate the South Sudanese red-pink sunset as one of the great wonders I have seen in the world.

I promise I am not going to write the usual things you would expect to read about the newest nation on the planet, or create another humanitarian expose full of suffering intended to shock and heartbreak you into committing to help the people there. There are tons of those stories in every village, road, and house in South Sudan and despite that what I do there in fact, is relief and development work, it is time that someone highlights the successes of the place and not just the failures.

I am a midwife by training and to use an analogy related to that, giving birth is at once hard, painful, and ultimately leads to something beautiful. We shouldn't expect less when Africa bears a new nation. Like being in labor, the process has its ebbs and flows, its peaks and lulls, and literally requires blood, sweat, and tears in order to be successful. It is so easy to forget after such a profound experience that once the birth is over, the hard work actually has just begun. The world forgets that South Sudan is only in its infancy and in light of this, is pretty darn accomplished. Every time I go, there are more roads paved, more villages with running water, more health services operating and improved training programs. Is there still a very long way to go? Yes, of course, but look how far they have come.

The side of South Sudan that people might never imagine includes dispelling a couple of myths: South Sudan is neither part of Sudan anymore (Americans seem to all think this), nor is it Islamic (Americans REALLY seem to all think this), the people are extremely hardworking, fun-loving, and pretty hard to put in a bad mood. Conditions there are difficult but the South Sudanese are adaptable and just keep moving forward despite how little they have to work with.

One of my favorite things about South Sudan is how you greet people. All people. Even strangers. Even if you already just saw them 15 minutes before, everyone still feels the greeting bears repeating. It is a combination of handshake and high-five with simultaneous smile and them exclaiming, "You are very welcome!" when you enter their home or office. You will never feel unwanted or out of place in a room full of people there. You will immediately be taken care of and included in any conversations. I've often thought of the irony of how they have an ongoing often violent political conflict happening yet in day-to-day life are some of the most easy-going and friendly people I've ever known. And remember, I'm from HAWAII, so I know what easy-going is.

I wish everyone could meet my friends Taban and Wilson who are my colleagues at Real Medicine Foundation; they are classic South Sudanese. Of course, they have a "story" like everyone you meet there that involves loss and displacement but also faith and humor. Taban is from Nimule, along the Ugandan border. He was born in the Nimule Hospital across the street from the place I call "the Indian restaurant that doesn't have Indian food or electricity to make Indian food" (I actually don't even know the real name for the place). He is literally one of the most gentle and genuine people I have ever known and my favorite amusing thing about him (and most South Sudanese) is how he feels personally responsible for everyone's happiness at all times. If you accidentally trip, South Sudanese say, "So sorry!" if you get a headache, "so sorry!" Once Taban even apologized because a lizard jumped on the sidewalk in front of me and I got startled.

Wilson, like most South Sudanese, is a very faithful Christian who prays even before driving so that, "we may arrive safely even on tricky roads." (I have learned that 'tricky' in South Sudan can mean windy, unpaved, or riddled with armed bandits depending on how you look at things...nonetheless, Wilson will tell you praying will cover all your bases in this regard). I don't know if it is because of what the people have been through or despite it but you really cannot do much to upset the average South Sudanese person and Wilson is no exception. He and Taban have sat me down patiently many times to give me the "Cindy, don't lose your mind, it is South Sudan and you know things don't happen on time or the way you expect ever" speech.

I know I can't endorse South Sudan as a travel destination (at least not yet) and not everyone is in the position to donate to improve the lives of people there (although if you can please do!) but what I hope is that perhaps you can think of something positive the next time you read a news article about war, conflict, corruption, or injustice there. These are just parts of the labor and the new nation, contracting and emerging and finding its way. Instead think of boating down the Nile on a warm fall day, sitting and watching herds of elephants in the National Park in Nimule, drinking a beer with friends in Juba, or the singing and dancing of school children welcoming you to their remote but beautiful village. This is the real South Sudan, the one we can look forward to nurturing and being proud of every day. This is the South Sudan I am grateful to be a very small part of.